The United States' top military officer said Thursday that President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan incurred "more risk than I was originally prepared to accept" but that he now supports Obama's strategy.
"I would prefer not to discuss the specifics of the private advice I rendered with respect to these decisions. As I said, I support them,'' Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in prepared remarks he was due to deliver in a congressional hearing.
"What I can tell you is, the president's decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept," he added.
Mullen, who is retiring Oct. 1, was blunt in testifying about the risks and potential rewards of Obama's decision.
His testimony came the same day Obama addressed troops at Fort Drum, N.Y., NBC News reported.
"Our job is not finished," Obama told the troops, echoing comments from his primetime Wednesday speech. "If you looked at the schedule I set forth, you know, we're only bringing out 10,000 by the end of this year. We're going to bring out all 33,000 that we surged by the next summer, but there's still some fighting to be done, and then we're still going to have 68,000 and, frankly, the 10th Mountain Division is still going to be represented there until we've fully transferred to the Afghan military and security forces."
The 10th Mountain is one of the divisions deployed most frequently to the Middle East.
He credited the troops with taking the war to the Taliban instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to the United States and paving the way for the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
"It's also because of you that we had the platform to be able to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida and we have decimated their ranks," Obama said.
At the congressional hearing, Mullen said, "More force for more time is, without doubt, the safer course. But that does not necessarily make it the best course. Only the president, in the end, can really determine the acceptable level of risk we must take. I believe he has done so."
"No commander ever wants to sacrifice fighting power in the middle of a war. And no decision to demand that sacrifice is ever without risk," he said.
"This is particularly true in a counterinsurgency, where success is achieved not solely by technological prowess or conventional superiority, but by the wit and the wisdom of our people as they pursue terrorists and engage the local populace on a daily basis. In a counterinsurgency, firepower is manpower," he added.
On the other hand, Mullen said, taking the safer course would have entailed other kinds of risks, such as increasing the Afghan government's dependence on the U.S.
Many Democrats had urged Obama to pull out U.S. troops faster, while other lawmakers — particularly some Republicans — have taken the opposite view.
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Mullen at Thursday's hearing that he fears the Obama plan "will significantly undermine" the goal of transferring full responsibility for security to the Afghan government by the end of 2014.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the committee's top ranking Democrat, endorsed the drawdown as "modest" and said that taking 33,000 U.S. troops out while adding more than 120,000 Afghan security forces limits the risk. He said it would be more risky for the U.S. to stay too long.
No 'rush to the exits'
Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy said Thursday that the withdrawal was fully consistent with U.S. war strategy.
"This announcement in no way marks a change in American policy or strategy in Afghanistan," Flournoy said in prepared remarks for the House Armed Services hearing.
She said that after the drawdown the U.S. would still have 68,000 service members in the country.
"Clearly, this is not a 'rush to the exits' that will jeopardize our security gains," she said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that the U.S. had made initial contacts with the Taliban and that a negotiated settlement could be reached.
"We believe that a political solution ... is possible. The United States has a broad range of contacts at many levels across Afghanistan and the region ... including very preliminary outreach to members of the Taliban," Clinton told a Senate hearing.
She added that "this is not a pleasant business," but part of efforts to end the insurgency in Afghanistan.
In his nationally televised speech outlining a shift in U.S. policy, Obama said that after the initial reduction, more troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan at a steady pace as Afghans take over their own security by 2014.
"Huge challenges remain. This is the beginning — but not the end of our effort to wind down this war," the president said. "America, it is time to focus on nation building at home."
"The tide of war is receding," he said to war-weary Americans eager for an exit to the conflict.
Obama said the United States was able to remove troops because al-Qaida was under more pressure than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that precipitated the war.
He said the United States would join initiatives aimed at reconciling the Afghan people, including the Taliban, as the Afghan government and security forces are strengthened.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke briefly from the presidential palace Thursday morning, thanking international troops for their support and adding that "the people of Afghanistan will be protecting their homeland."
"The Afghan people's trust in the Afghan army and police is growing every day and preservation of this land is the job of Afghans," Karzai told a news conference.
"I welcome the decision of the U.S. president today on pulling out (some of) ... its troops from Afghanistan and I consider this a right decision for the interest of both countries," he said.